Robots have been in use in the healthcare sector for some time, operating largely behind the scenes. Over the last five years, the range of robotic applications in healthcare has expanded rapidly to include assistive applications for doctors, nurses, caregivers and patients in hospitals and care facilities. In the second of this two-part blog series, we focus on applications in which robots come into direct contact with both healthcare staff and patients, keeping hospitals safe, and assisting doctors and nurses in a range of functions.
Cleaning and disinfection
According to the World Health Organisation, the cost of treating hospital infections runs to around €7 billion per year in Europe and US$6.5 billion in the U.S. Cleaning and disinfection robots have been at work reducing this toll for some time. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought them into the spotlight, increased adoption, and also expanded use outside of hospitals to public spaces such as public transport and shopping malls. Over 30 disinfection robot types from different manufacturers were newly registered in 2020 and the IFR expects double-digit growth in this market in the coming years. Many mobile disinfection robots use UV light to kill germs and most can be operated easily by cleaning staff. Ultra-violet disinfection robots can destroy 99.9% of all microorganisms in a hospital room within 10 minutes. Others spray chemical disinfectants. See examples here.
Robots have been used for some time for minimally-invasive surgery, allowing surgeons to perform a variety of operations with greater precision and faster recovery times for patients. The range of existing systems is continuously expanding. For example, Swiss company AOT recently announced a new robot application for bone surgery, using a KUKA robot. The market for surgical robots is niche in terms of unit sales but accounted for over US$ 5 billion in 2019 due to the high price of these robots. The IFR expects an annual sales growth of 23% between 2020 and 2023.
Robots are also used increasingly in patient rehabilitation. The advantage of robot devices over rehabilitation exercises guided only by a therapist is that the robot device ensures that the movement is repeated in the same way each time, training the brain to enable muscles to carry out the movements alone. Repetitions per session are also generally higher with robot-assisted rehabilitation. The robots collect data on the patient’s performance, enabling therapists and doctors to assess progress accurately. Most rehabilitation robots consist of an exoskeleton that the patient wears, and other equipment such as a treadmill or computer screen guiding the exercises. See examples here.
KUKA’s ROBERT® rehab robot, image credit KUKA
Robotic assistance for healthcare workers
The market for assistance robots in healthcare is relatively young but shows promise. These robots can provide information, respond to simple questions and in some cases, connect the user with a trained professional via video link, enabling remote communication between doctors, nurses and patients. For example, mobile bases equipped with computer screens can follow nurses or navigate autonomously to a patient’s bed to connect the patient with a doctor at a remote location. This not only allows for far more effective specialist consultations – since the doctor can see and interact with the patient rather than work off patient notes – it also enables medical interaction with patients who may be highly infectious. Some hospitals use a mobile robot base equipped with a robot arm to take simple diagnostic measurements such as a patient’s temperature – an application that became more prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There is a growing market for these telepresence robots as part of efforts to help elderly people remain in assisted living or their homes for longer, staying connected to their caregivers, friends and family.
A cardiologist discusses the advantages of using a telepresence robot
The image of the remote user is displayed on the screen and the robot can be driven around to view anything in its vicinity. Most of these robots are controllable from any location with a smartphone or computer and internet connection. Family members, friends, doctors, and caregivers can all log into the telepresence robot, drive it, interact with others, and explore the environment with audio and video. See examples here.
The IFR predicts strong growth of 40% per year in unit sales of mobile guidance, information and telepresence robots between 2020 and 2023 across a range of industry sectors. However, adoption rates in the healthcare sector are likely to be somewhat lower, due to budget constraints in the sector and also strict regulation governing the care and data privacy of patients and vulnerable citizens such as the elderly.
The future of robots in healthcare
As the range of tasks performed by both collaborative and mobile robots increases, we can expect to see increased adoption of robots across the entire spectrum of healthcare. In the short to medium-term, we can expect an expansion of robots for tasks that do not involve significant interaction with physicians, nurses and patients – such as fetching and carrying materials and medications. In the long term, as software algorithms develop, we will see increasing robot-to-human interaction. For example, development is going into intelligent assistants for care homes checking if someone has water to drink and serving them if not, as well as providing entertainment and assisting carers. These kinds of tasks require complex software algorithms in order for robots to understand and respond appropriately to the environment. However, these applications are technically highly complex and the regulatory and budgetary constraints faced by most healthcare organisations mean that it will likely be decades before we see widespread adoption of advanced intelligent assistants in healthcare. We may also see nurses equipped with exoskeletons, helping them to move patients while avoiding back strain. In addition to budgetary considerations, however, exoskeletons currently take time to put on and set-up so it will be some time before exoskeletons become commercial reality in hospitals.